Seed Starting Accessories

By Jim Janke | Nov 22, 2012

On a whim over 30 years ago I started a packet of perennial flower seeds indoors. They germinated, grew in the basement, and bloomed all summer. They even survived a tough Chicago winter to bloom the following year. I was hooked. Now I grow 30 or 40 different plants from seed each year.

Over the years I’ve found a few things that make seed starting easier. If you grow plants from seeds indoors, these accessories will help assure success.

Grow lights. Hang a fluorescent fixture just above your seedlings, and they will be stockier and bloom earlier. Inexpensive 4-foot long “shop lights” with 2 standard cool-white bulbs do a good job. Fixtures designed specifically for seed-starting and wide-spectrum “grow bulbs” are also available. Plug the lights into a timer and program them to be on for 18 hours each day.

I have three 5-foot long shelves for seedlings, and by late March all the shelves are full. Hanging the shop lights on chains above each shelf allows me to vary the height of the lights as the plants grow.

Heating devices. Some seeds require a little warmth to germinate. For these I use a single wire heating cable under the seed flats. Or you can get a sophisticated heating pad with an automated thermostat. Too much heat is just as bad as too little, so check the seed packet for the optimum germination temperature. Turn off the heating cable after the seeds have sprouted.

Plastic trays. Standard “1020” flats hold all my seedlings and transplants. Water is added to the flat (not directly on the plants), so be sure to get the model without drainage holes. If a flat has lots of plants in it I double it up for added strength.  

Many different containers (“inserts”) are available for the flats; each size has a code number. For example, a “1201” insert has 1 opening, and 12 of them fit in a standard flat (thus the name “1201”.) I sow most of my seeds in this type of insert.

Similarly, six “606” inserts, each with 6 openings, fit in a standard flat. I transplant most seedlings into these “six-packs”; “804” inserts are used for transplants that will get larger before going outside.

The trays and inserts can be reused for many years. Wash thoroughly, soak in a 1% bleach solution to disinfect, and air dry. I go through a lot of plastic during the growing season, so my indoor “greenhouse” has an inexpensive dishwasher that cleans them nicely.

Labels. Unless you’re starting only one type of seed you’ll need to label everything. You can buy plastic or wood plant labels, but consider saving plastic knives and spoons from your next picnic. Wash as noted above. Mark your labels with a permanent marker.

Fertilizer containers. Wash and rinse some old 1-gallon jugs, and use them for half-strength water soluble fertilizer. Pour the fertilizer into your flats and let the seedlings absorb it from below.

I use a lot of fertilizer, and constantly refilling the jugs became a pain. So I set a 30 gallon plastic drum upside down on a sturdy shelving unit, and connected a pipe with a valve to the bottom of the drum so it drains into a sink. A hose is run from the sink through a hole near the top of the drum to fill it up, and water soluble fertilizer is added through the hole. Now I only need to make 2 or 3 batches of fertilizer each year, and there are a lot fewer jugs lying around.

Most mail order seed companies and some home centers sell seed starting accessories. Greenhouse supply companies have more variety, but often you must order a larger quantity.

Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575.  © 2012 NC State University.